Sunday, March 28, 2010

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book

Have you read Anita Silvey's new book? It is a collection of essays from dozens of people in every sort of profession from astronaut to writer, describing the children's books that changed their lives and influenced their paths. I received this book for Christmas, and am still inspired every time I pick it up. This is why I write for kids! Because children's literature, no matter the rap it gets from much of the elitist intellectual world, has the power to change and inspire like no adult book I have ever read. Because one book can take a child's life from mundane to wondrous, allow them to see the world as an adventure, help them become who they want to be and not merely who others think they can be.

And of course it got me thinking: what children's book most influenced my life? I don't think I could whittle it down to just one without many tears shed, so I sort of cheated and chose a series:

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES (and the rest of the Anne books), by L. M. Montgomery.

I remember the Christmas when I was ten years old and my aunt gave me my first Anne book. It was a small, squarish volume with a picture of Anne in a pink dress (I know, the illustrator didn't read it so thoroughly, huh?) on the front. I started reading it that afternoon and didn't stop until sometime around two o'clock in the morning (I had a good nightlight, let me tell you...we went through a lot together). I was enthralled. I could hardly believe that someone had written a book so wonderful, and that there were more.

It's hard to begin listing what the Anne books taught me, because in each of many re-readings I learned more. First of all, I learned how much I could love a book, how it could wrap itself around my heart and imagination; that very much influenced my desire to write and give readers this kind of joy. I learned to live and love boldly and passionately, to make my dreams real, to never stop imagining. I discovered the difference between true and false friends, learned that a change in a friendship doesn't mean it has ended, learned that even people we dislike have good in them, sometimes a lot of it, if we only look. I learned, in Anne of Ingleside, that it was really cool to be a mother, and that even a mama of seven could still follow her dreams (I hope I have the chance to put that to the test someday. :). In Anne's House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside, I learned that death is part of life, and that even with sorrow life can be joyous. I was assured that true love exists and that I would find my own. I learned that love requires work, and that it was worth it.

I was also astonished, in Rainbow Valley, to read about a girl named 'Faith'...who, incidentally, had a lot in common with me as far as personality and trouble-making went. I had never even met anyone with my name, but suddenly being a 'Faith' in a world of 'Sarahs' and 'Megans' and 'Katies' and 'Ashleys' was pretty cool—I will forever be grateful to L. M. Montgomery for that one, small decision. :)

Is there a kids' book that changed your life? I'd love to hear about it!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Do you want to BE a writer?

My whole life I've been telling myself (and anyone else who'll listen) that I want to be a writer. But except for a lot of high school and college essays and a handful of poems and stories, I never wrote anything. I had plenty of ideas in my head, numerous first chapters, but nothing that justified saying “I am a writer.”

The summer after I graduated from college and got married, my husband convinced me to actually sit down and be a writer instead of just talking about it. With my sister- and mother-in-law, we started a weekly critique group, and for the first time I experienced that satisfaction of really writing, really accomplishing, facing stumbling blocks and overcoming them. I wrote a rough draft of my American Revolution historical novel, The Bee Hive, in six months, and even though it was difficult to get over my bad habits, I was just really, incredibly happy that I was finally doing something to pursue my dreams.

Then... I entered the world of submission. I started in 2007 by submitting The Bee Hive to a CT statewide contest for unpublished writers, the Tassy Walden Award for New Voices in Children's Literature. When I found out I was a finalist, I squealed and danced for at least a few days, on and off. It was finally here—that elusive moment—I was going to be published! I knew winning the contest was no guarantee of future publication, but I figured, if an agent judge had chosen the ms as a finalist, it must be pretty great, right? (Ok, I can hear you snickering. I was extremely naive.) An editor from a respected house asked to see all the YA finalist mss, so I fixed a few format errors and sent it off.

Six months came: my first rejection. I only realized later how amazing it was to get a personal rejection with a few nice comments and some constructive criticism in it. All I saw was: SHE HATED IT.

Fortunately, I'm ridiculously stubborn, and my husband wouldn't have let me give up anyway. I kept writing, writing, writing, and kept submitting, and kept getting rejected. Over the next two years, I was once again a finalist and once a winner in the “Tassy”, got half a dozen form rejections and about twice as many nice, personal ones. The worst was a copy-pasted form rejection in which the editor said a few kind things about enjoying my chapters, but Lily just wasn't right for her house—which would have been really nice, except my book was called The Art of Elsewhere, and there was no one named Lily in it at all.

By early last year, I was starting to feel really worn out and discouraged. I felt I would never meet my goal of being published. I felt disgusted with myself for trying, when obviously it wasn't meant to be. I was reluctant to spend any more time revising things or writing anything new, when none of my previous changes had made much difference in the long run.

Then I remembered: I want to be a writer. Which means: writing. I recalled my initial excitement at just getting words down on paper, finding that perfect scene, spending time with my characters, in their world. I had become so preoccupied with the worry of submission, that I had forgotten the reason I started writing in the first place. I had stopped wanting to be a writer—I wanted to have been one.

With this epiphany in mind, I approached revising my work with new vigor. I didn't need quick fixes for problems with my ms: I needed to make it perfect. I found that keeping my focus on writing and away from submitting allowed me to enjoy the process as I first had.

Don't get me wrong: I'm still submitting, now that I have a finished product that I'm happy with—now that the voice in my mind that used to say, “Maybe no one will notice,” is finally silent. I still very much want to be published. But I realize that every rejection brings me closer to that goal. Every form rejection is just a step along the path, and every personal rejection is a rare gift that allows me to grow as a writer and hone my skills.

On our recent trip to Amherst, Massachusetts, we drove by Emily Dickinson's home (we wanted to go inside but it was closed for repairs to the roof). Emily Dickinson has always been a bit of a mystery to me; I admired much of her poetry, but I couldn't understand her attitude towards publishing...she called it something like, “the auctioning of man's soul.” Since my desire to share my stories is so strong, I will never agree with her, but I see that there is truth in her perspective. By developing herself as a writer rather than become obsessed with publication, she was able to become a truly great poet.

So, fellow writers, congratulations on all your accomplishments, large and small. Here's to being writers! And I'd love to know: what gets you through rejection?

Except chocolate, that is. Chocolate is a given.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


We had a beautiful day yesterday at the Eric Carle Museum, in which we viewed gorgeous artwork by Eric Carle and Antonio Frasconi, saw a human-size caterpillar (from a distance--the costume was just a teency bit terrifying), drew our own caterpillars, and basked in the sun and a creative environment.

For the sake of visual interest I'm including our very own illustrations made in the museum's art room. The first is my husband Mark's. (I know. He's got a million talents. But he's nice and doesn't rub it in.) The second is Lucy's. Even at two, it's clear she's inheriting her father's skill.

The third is mine. So it's kinda scary! It's a bug, all right? It's supposed to be scary. The nice lady working there told me she loved the polka dots and that it was very original. Hmph. I am obviously not meant to be an illustrator, but it was fun. :)

Anyway, we loved the museum, and all the caterpillars brought on some interesting thoughts on what it is to be a creative person. Like caterpillars, we crawl along, making slow progress, often hiding ourselves from the world day...tada! We're butterflies! And...I think I learned the secret to this transformation, hidden in Mr. Carle's classic book:
You have to eat a lot.
One apple on Monday...
Two pears on Tuesday...
Three plums on Wednesday...
...and lots of pie and ice cream. I'm pretty sure it's the pie and ice cream that does the trick. I'm going to go get some chocolate chip cookie dough. :)

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Day

Tomorrow, in honor of the lovely caterpillar, admission to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts is free. (See here.)
If you live in the New England area and have never been, tomorrow is a perfect day to check out the museum. It's beautiful, a lot of fun for kids and adults, and a great way to incorporate art into children's lives. I mean, a museum where my two-year-old has fun for more than twenty minutes (a lot more than that--we have to talk her into leaving). A-mazing.
If you've already been, like me, you're probably really excited at this extra chance to enjoy its wonderfulness for free. :)
On a random note, Amherst was also the home to Emily Dickinson...maybe some of her prolificness (If it's not a word, it shoulf be) will rub off on me while I visit her old stomping grounds.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Bright Star

I'm a sucker for movies, especially movies about writers, writing, or books. So I was really excited when Jane Campion's film, Bright Star, the story of the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, was released on DVD.

The film is primarily a romance, but it was inspiring to be reminded of the power of the written word in life, in relationships. The high points of the story, as well as the depths to which it plunges, are catapulted forth by something very simple: a letter. As writers (actually, even as a letter-writer!) we have to remember the power we have to change lives through words alone.
Back to the movie, it was, simply put, gorgeous. Its images and scenes alone are enough to justify watching it...and the acting, wow. There is a moment towards the end where Mrs. Brawne gives her permission to Fanny to be engaged to John--no dialogue, no show, just the slightest twitch of her mouth and nod of her head. "Showing not telling" at its best. You can completely see the emotion and struggle in Mrs. Brawne's heart, but she doesn't need dialogue to express this.

Finally, very randomly, I thought Fanny's sewing and clothes-design was wicked cool. Though I was familiar with Fanny and John's real-life romance, I never knew that Fanny was a seamstress, and a good one, too. It was refreshing to see a movie portray something so often put down as the enslavement of the female sex as a talent, a skill, something really amazing and worthwhile--and the filming of the stitching itself is spectacular and art-worthy. I wish I could sew now, though I think I need to learn to live without sleep if I'm ever to have time for all the beautiful, worthy things I wish I could do. For now I'll stick to writing.

Best lines:

Fanny: I still don't know how to work out a poem.
Keats: A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is a experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.

Sammy: Have you got John Keats's poem book?
Toots: My sister has met the author and she wants to read it for herself to see if he's an idiot or not.

Brown: But, if the princess has abandoned the dwarf, can we not keep his love speech?

Brown: If Mr. Keats and myself are strolling in the meadow, lounging on the sofa, or staring into the wall, do not presume we're not working. Doing nothing is the musing of the poet.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Today I did an interview with Jame Richards, author of the soon-to-be-released Three Rivers Rising over at my book review blog.
I really enjoy doing author interviews, for one thing because I just love authors and learning about the way they see life. C. S. Lewis said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” I definitely feel that when I read the answers that authors give to my questions. It's wonderful being in a community of fun, interesting, kind people, so thanks to all of you!

It's a stunningly beautiful spring day here in Connecticut...which means a few things for me. One, I've been singularly unproductive, though I'm trying. Two, I have a craving for fresh fruits, and am definitely going to bypass the table and have a picnic tonight, even if it's inside with the windows open. And third, I've caught my annual L. M. Montgomery bug.

Speaking of writer friends, I wonder if Maud Montgomery could ever have imagined how many future writers would list her among their "kindred spirits" and inspirations. I'm reading Emily's Quest now, her semi-autobiographical novel about a young girl who dreams of becoming a writer, and my own determination to get past my writing struggles, unfavorable critiques, and daily difficulties has new strength.
If I can write a book with a hundreth of the impact any of hers has had and is having...that would be success that I can hardly dream of.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

You you eat...

Here's a link to a cool, stunningly accurate mini-quiz by author Y.S. Lee, which tells you what kind of author you are based on the way you eat.
Fun times...
(I'm "A", by the way.)

My personal rules for being a writer mama

Get up before your kids do.

Learn to multi- (Sweetie, crayons are for coloring, not for eating!) -task.

Utilize story-time. Sometimes I simplify my stories to tell to Lucy, my almost-three-year-old, and trying to keep scenes to her attention span makes me realize their weak points. It also helps me realize where the heart of the scene or story really is. And never underestimate the value of good picture books and story books. Pay attention to the language and flow, listen to it as you read. The more good writing you read, the better your own writing will become.*

Menial daily tasks exist to allow time to think. Agatha Christie said the best time to plot a book was while washing dishes...though I think vacuuming may be a close second.

Take advantage of baby-wearing. Seriously, keeping my little one in a sling or a wrap keeps her near me, happy and content. I can write in peace knowing her big sister isn't feeding her crayons or anything, and she enjoys the clacking of the keyboard, my talking aloud, and my intermittent humming of the Pride and Prejudice soundtrack.**

Life is research. If you're writing for kids, you'd better pay attention to what kids are like. I live in a constant state of study. Listening well to your kids will make you a better mother and a better writer.

Don't make excuses. There's a difference between reasons and excuses. “I didn't write anything today because I spent every moment of my time pacing with a teething baby” is a reason. “I didn't even sit down to write today because I'm tired from pacing my teething baby yesterday” is an excuse. You won't accomplish anything if you don't sit down and try.

It helps to have a husband who is also a writer and therefore very sensitive to the need to “just finish this one paragraph” and doesn't bat an eyelash when that takes twenty-five minutes. I don't know how I'd manage without him.

It also helps to live near family...My mom babysits Lucy every Tuesday morning so I can attend a critique group, and my mother-in-law (also a writer) lets me sit by her fire and write while the two of us take turns entertaining, feeding, holding, etc. (Thank you both!)

Prioritize. Gale Sayers (the Chicago Bear immortalized by the movie Brain's Song***) titled his memoir: I am Third, listing his own priorities as “God, my family, then myself.” As a writer mother, I'd have to change it up a little: God, my family, writing...then those trivial matters like certain housework. The fish can live in green water for a few days, and socks don't have to match if you're wearing them under boots, right?
I firmly believe that part of serving God is using and developing the talents he gives you. I think being creative is an essential part of being human, and to stifle creativity is to throw God's gift back in his face.
Yes, it's really hard sometimes. If it was too easy, I'd be suspicious. I've learned that the things of greatest value in life always require the most work.

*Today, I came across this sentence in Grimm's Sleeping Beauty: “When he came to the castle, all was just as it had been at the moment Briar Rose fell asleep, as still and silent as a held breath.” I mean, wow.
**I think if Mozart can make your baby smarter, so can Dario Marianelli.
***Remember: “I love Brian Piccolo”...sigh. Best sports movie ever.